I have a theory that I’ve made into an aphorism: you can borrow time, but you can’t steal it.

The saying is mainly about sleep. If you have to finish a paper by 8am you can stay up all night to finish it. This may seem like a brilliant move because, after all, what were you going to do with the hours between midnight and 7am anyway? You were just going to waste it in bed. So now your paper is done and all you missed was a night’s sleep.

But all you’ve really done is borrowed time. You haven’t stolen it. Because you stayed up all night on Thursday, you’ll invariably crash on Friday. If not on Friday, then you’ll sleep in an extra five hours on Saturday. If you barely catch up on sleep over the weekend, you’ll likely get sick the next week. If you don’t get sick and you keep pushing yourself on empty, your productivity will slide. Or you’ll get into a car accident because you’re so tired. Or you’ll snap at your friends and cause a relational meltdown. All of which take time. You will have to make up for the seven hours of sleep you missed the week before. In fact, the longer you try to borrow against sleep, the more your body (or God) will force you to pay for those hours plus interest. That one all-nighter might cost you three full days of wasted time after all is said and done.

I recently read an article by a computer programmer about how making sleep a priority makes us more productive. There was nothing deep or spiritual about the post, but I imagine his experience, in general, has been the experience of a lot of folks, even if our details are quite different.

Three years ago I started a company in San Francisco with some friends. I didn’t quit my day job, so this was an after-hours project. We set up an office and established a routine of working from 6 p.m. to midnight. After we started working for the new company full-time, I fell into a classic trap of San Francisco startup culture: I confused work hours with productivity. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that working smart was better than working hard, but I convinced myself that I was doing both.

I wasn’t. As a programmer, I averaged 10-12 hours in front of a computer every day and rarely went to bed before midnight. Eventually, I felt dull and unmotivated. When I took two weeks off to travel in Colombia, I spent the first few nights sleeping for 10 hours each. I realized that if there is such a thing as sleep debt, I had accumulated some. I made up my mind to correct my sleep patterns.

I know this is easier said than done, especially for moms and dads with young children. But it would be worth your time (and mine!) to talk to your friends or spouse about how your life might be suffering from constant sleep deprivation. I doubt many of us will be able to solve the whole problem, but I doubt there isn’t something all of us can do to make sleep a higher priority. Less caffeine at night, no internet past 9pm, no t.v. past 10pm, better planning during the day, scheduling your week so that known sleep-deprived nights will be followed with lighter days—whatever little things you can do to pay back your sleep debt will undoubtedly be good for you, your work, your soul, and the ones you love.

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Comments:


19 thoughts on “Stop Your Cheatin’ Ways”

  1. Mike McGarry says:

    Great reminder… I wish I read it last week. I actually just blogged on a very similar theme – how those of us in vocational ministry can short-circuit our ministry by neglecting sleep. http://wp.me/pC9Qm-qz

  2. Rose says:

    And, of course, there is a psalm for that too: Psalm 127. When my children were younger I thought it was ironic that a psalm enjoining sleep would also extol the blessing of children!

  3. Clarice says:

    good practical thoughts. I’m so deeply in debt as a mom of 2 little kids, I sometimes feel hopeless to ever catch up! Thankfully, I don’t hope in sleep. :)

  4. Lisa Morrone says:

    Exactly my take in my latest book, Sleep Well Again, published by Harvest House Publishers (March 2012)!In fact this week, my Monday Morning Health Tip was titled: Climbing Out of Sleep Debt. Check it out at http://www.LisaMorrone.com.

    Sweet Blessings,
    Lisa Morrone

  5. Andrew says:

    “no internet past nine” It’s 9:59 here and I was unproductively surfing the web until I got this reminder to shut it down and go to bed…thanks.

  6. Aubrey says:

    Physician here and I think this is a great post. There is actually really good research that the relationship between lost sleep and performance is linear – i.e. – the less sleep you have the worse you perform. However, the relationship between lost sleep and your PERCEPTION of your performance is not linear. To a point, you perceive you are performing badly, but at some point you are no longer able to perceive that your performance is continuing to deteriorate. Lots of the sleep research was done on resident physicians, a generally sleep-deprived cohort, which is why there have been so many pushes lately to change the way residents work. You can’t make good decisions if you’re not well rested. Especially important for physicians who are making life-and-death decisions, but just as important for all of us who want to be productive members of society.

  7. Mickey says:

    How I loathe those little slices of death.

  8. Dave says:

    Excellent post. While some of my friends bragged about being able to consistently work with only 6 hours of sleep, I have always need at least 8 hours of sleep. One week in college I averaged about 5 1/2 hours of sleep a night and by Sunday I had pink eye, a double ear infection and a cold. While this might not happen to everyone, your body is much more susceptible to sickness when you are running low on sleep.

  9. Mickey says:

    Life would be better if we didn’t have to waste a third of it on playing dead.

    It’s as annoying as a dripping faucet. I’m sitting there, trying to read a book, and my eyes keep closing! I get that every productive thing – even humans – requires a fallow period. Sleep is just so dull, and so unpleasant, and so unproductive. If I could have one (selfish) wish – no more sleeping.

    But of course, no amount of wishing will relieve me of it. I just have to sleep sometimes. And I hate that.

  10. Gentry says:

    DeYoung, why don’t you shepherd your church more and blog less?

  11. Larry says:

    Yea, he does blog a lot about others. Why don’t you manup an confront them rather than blog? I’re sure you have the connections to, as well as the time. It would be a couple min phone call. Your blog probably takes as long as a call would. Matthew 18, go to them!

  12. Rhoda says:

    Thanks for the reminder!
    Too many days I act as though sleep is for the weak and unmotivated….

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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